Exclusive: Cellphone Spy Tools Have Flooded U.S. Police Departments

10-months-long investigation by CityLab finds major cities throughout the U.S. have spent millions on mobile surveillance tools—but there are still few rules about what happens to the information they capture.

Washington, D.C. (February 8, 2017)-- A new investigation by has found that major police departments around the country are spending millions on cellphone spy tools that can be used to build up massive surveillance databases— with few rules about what happens to the data they capture. The exclusive report from CityLab reporter George Joseph is online now.

Hundreds of documents obtained by CityLab from the country’s fifty largest police departments over the last ten months reveal that the majority of departments have quietly acquired at least one of two main types of digital-age spy tools: cell phone interception devices, used to covertly track or grab data from nearby mobile devices, and cell phone extraction devices, used to crack open locked phones that are in police possession and scoop out all sorts of private communications and content.

CityLab is the first to document the spread of these tools into urban police departments at a national scale, tracking over $4 million in equipment purchases. The site maps the cities who’ve bought military spy gear and lists the amounts police have spent from 2012-2016: from $765,000 in Fort Worth to $9,000 in Columbus.

Joseph writes that the proliferation of such devices, once largely limited to intelligence agencies like the NSA and the FBI, points to the rapid expansion of domestic law enforcement’s surveillance capacities. He writes: “With only a few clicks, police can now map out individuals’ social networks, communications’ timelines, and associates’ locations, based on the data captured by these surveillance tools.”

Among the investigation’s top findings:

  • The information obtained by CityLab suggests that, at a minimum, 39 of the 50 largest U.S. police departments have acquired at least some of these military-grade surveillance tools over the last four years.

  • At least 19 police departments acquired cellphone extraction devices, which allow police to crack open locked devices and collect vast amounts of phone data— without any assistance from cell phone companies. All 19 of these departments bought extraction devices made by the Israeli-firm Cellebrite.

  • The Baltimore, Seattle, Oklahoma City, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Louisville, Tucson, and Miami police department purchases all appear to include a tool which could go as far as tracking individuals’ minute-by-minute movement by exploiting past Google location history data.

  • In 2012, Baltimore County Police likely purchased a “Dirtbox,”  a powerful cell phone interception device that can be mounted on planes to track ten thousand cell phones at the same time.

  • At least twelve of the departments surveyed have cell phone interception devices, known as cell site simulators, which masquerade as a cell tower and have the ability to collect locations, call and text logs from thousands of phones within radius. Over 2012 to 2014, Baltimore, Boston, Milwaukee, and Phoenix police each spent between $60,000 to $154,000 to upgrade to this type of system.

Joseph reports that few uniform standards have been enacted to make sure cell phone surveillance practices are in lock-step with individuals’ due process rights, and the picture is even murkier when it comes to what happens to the data once police departments have it.

Please be in touch for more information or if you’re interesting in interview CityLab editors about their findings.


About CityLab, a digitally-native property from The Atlantic, is a destination for all things urban. Through original reporting, sharp analysis, and visual storytelling, CityLab informs and inspires the people who are creating the cities of the future—and those who want to live there. Coverage includes transportation, housing, crime, politics, design, and tech; with featured sections including “Navigator,” a guide to modern urban etiquette and “CityFixer,” solutions for an urbanizing world. Originally founded as The Atlantic Cities, CityLab was rebranded in 2014 and boasts a growing masthead of staff writers and contributors.